Brave Woman

Adventures of a future nurse-midwife


Cancer Scare

Posted by Lucille on March 27, 2017 at 3:15 PM

(Spoilers: I'm totally okay, just magic.)

Spring break was a more anxious time than I anticipated.

I finished writing my last post about how relentless this term was and decided that before I started studying for my last final, I should take a bath. (Procrastination is a personal strength.) So I drew up a bath and got in and relished in putting off thinking about all the studying I had to do for an extra twenty minutes, and then I felt a weird twinge in my chest and looked down, and saw a drop of milk drip from my left breast into the water.

I think I just sat there for a few minutes before it really registered what I had just seen, until I finally blinked and reached up to squeeze my breast, and another drop of milk dripped into the water. Nothing from the other breast. And then I burst out laughing, and said out loud to my cats, "Of course. Of fucking course. Relentless, I tell you." And then I sat there for another few seconds until the shock wore off and my brain started working and setting off alarm bells and I leapt out of the bath and grabbed a pregnancy test, paced around for a minute, and got an invalid result. So I sat down naked on the edge of the tub and called my doctor. And left a message. And called Travis, who was taking a final, so I left a message. And then I threw some clothes on and walked across town to buy another pregnancy test.

I went through the self-checkout line trying to be discreet, but then the person in front of me walked out without paying, so the attendant had to come over to type an override code. She glanced at what I was buying and kept her face professionally neutral after a brief sympathetic flash of, "Oh, honey." And I almost laughed thinking that I must be the only college student with wet hair buying just a pregnancy test to check out while thinking, "Please, please just be an unintended pregnancy and not cancer."

The on-call doctor called me back. I was talking really fast but she was kind and patient as we went through the checklist to confirm that I had no other symptoms. She asked if I felt any lumps. "Tons, as usual, which is the problem," I said. "I don't think any of them feel different than the others but my mom had breast cancer at only one year older than I am and had to do a double mastectomy and a year of chemo and I know that unilateral milk production in a non-pregnant person is a sign of cancer because it's on the final exam I'm taking tomorrow and I'm kind of freaking out."

There was a long pause, and then she said, "Right then. We want to see you first thing in the morning." I asked if I should call back with the results of my pregnancy test and she said, "Call if it's positive. Otherwise we're just going to move forward with this being a cancer workup." (It was negative.)

I called a friend, who came over to keep me company until Travis came home. I was actually able to focus enough to do the studying I needed to. The next morning, I went straight to the doctor's. I was meeting with a different doctor than I normally see for the purpose of getting me in asap. They said that the three things on the table were hypothyroidism, pituitary tumor, and breast tumor. Of those, breast tumor was way more likely because of my family history and the fact that it was one breast and not both. She ordered blood work to rule out the other two. Regarding breast tumors, she said generally ultrasounds and mammograms show different things well, but that mammograms aren't usually done in people my age because it's hard to distinguish anything in denser breast tissue. I told her that because of my family history, my doctor had ordered a baseline mammogram a few years ago, so that if something like this happened we might be able to notice subtle differences that wouldn't be picked up without the comparison. She said, "Damn, you're on top of it! Okay, let's order both." She also put me on "breast rest", meaning I wasn't supposed to squeeze my breast or try to feel for lumps because stimulating the tissue could alter my hormone levels and throw of the blood work to be done in a few days.

I called to schedule the imaging and was told they couldn't work me in for more than a week. Technically, though, I could go to any imaging center in-network. It didn't have to be the one at the same hospital as my doctor. So I started calling around asking the different imaging departments about their earliest available appointments. I thought I was calling different schedulers at the different hospitals, but it turns out the schedulers were all together in an office somewhere, so when I called the third hospital, I hadn't gotten all the way through my question before they said, "Wait, are you the same person who just called the other two hospitals a few minutes ago? Yeah, we don't have anything within the week either." I blushed so hard. I think you're allowed to be impatient when you're having a cancer scare though, right?

I went straight from the doctor's office to my last final. I had asked about delaying it by a day, but that would only have been an option if the appointment was actually during the exam time. And two hours later, I was done with the hardest term I'd ever completed.

My classmates and I went out for drinks and I basked in seeing my exhaustion from this term and triumph at having finished it reflected in their faces. We made a toast to our own resilience and to never having to do that term again. I struggled with how to bring up what was going on. What do you say? By the way I might have cancer?

Turns out it came up on its own. We were passing around a friend's adorable baby when someone joked that the 12 of us should apply to adopt a baby together and then do our theses on collective breastfeeding traditions. "I know most of us have never been pregnant before, but I read somewhere that you can still induce lactation. I mean, all the tissue is there, right?"

I almost spit out my drink. "Way ahead of you," I said, and then shared everything that had happened in the last 24 hours.

As always, I felt grateful and humbled to be surrounded by such badass and fiercely loving humans. They enveloped me in support with both sincerity and humor. One person joked that if they had known what was going on they would have started a picket line in front of the classroom and all refused to take the final until I was ready. I laughed out loud and hugged everyone twice.

The hardest thing was knowing that most likely, spring break would come and go before I knew anything. I was emotionally all over the map: sometimes elated at finishing this term and coming back to catch babies in a week, and sometimes having loud anxious thoughts that spiraled away from me. I had deliberately planned for spring break to have lots of time to do nothing by myself, and quickly decided that doing nothing by myself was the surest way to let my anxiety get out of control. I did my best to stay distracted with spring cleaning, date nights with Travis, seeing friends, and a day at the zoo with my brother. When not distracted, I grieved the chance to breastfeed my future babies, wondered if I would need chemo and if that would mean needing to stop school, and looked through designs for mastectomy tattoos. I realized that my brain was getting way ahead of what I knew medically and wondered if I should be coping better, and then decided that should-ing myself was not a good coping skill and went back to distracting myself by building a laundry fort for the cats. (I mean, folding laundry. It's totally the same thing.)

More than a week after this all started, I went in for my mammogram and ultrasound. I had the same tech as last time, and since I still hadn't seen my own doctor in this whole process, it was wonderful to see a familiar face. (They weren't giving out bags of pink m&m's like last time though.) They scanned my boob every which-way and then the radiologist came back to tell me that everything looked perfectly normal. No breast tumor. This was confusing to me because hypothyroidism and a pituitary tumor had both seemed really unlikely. And then I got the lab results back a few hours later: all normal.

My body is just REALLY eager to feed non-existent babies, apparently.

I asked my doctor if there's an ICD-10 code for being a fertility goddess and she said there's a code for idiopathic unilateral galactorrhea.

I think fertility goddess has more of a ring to it.

Apparently this might continue indefinitely, go away and never come back, or come and go on monthly cycles. I'm looking into doing further genetic testing. (Mom is BRCA negative, but there are others.) I don't want to have another scare like this when there's a 50% chance I don't have whatever gene runs in our family in the first place. In the meantime:


I know we're all burnt out from this political nightmare, but please consider giving a donation to Planned Parenthood if you can. Access to mammograms is important for people of all ages and genders and literally saves lives. And if you're in a place where you can afford to make a donation to a good cause, please also consider donating to this GoFundMe for a friend of mine from Sunday Assembly to help him access a promising brain cancer treatment:

I know the world is super scary right now but WE ARE THE VILLAGE and we're looking out for each other.

Much love and thoughts of spring!

I woke up at 6 yesterday to go to my first lecture on intrapartum midwifery care. Six years since I first learned about midwifery, I'm really here. Even the sky seemed to be celebrating.

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Sometimes I have the privilege of being a part of intimate, powerful moments in other people’s lives. I cannot and would not share these stories, because they are not mine to tell. However, they touch my life and become part of my own story. When I share these moments here, you can trust that I have not broken anyone’s confidentiality. The characters are invented. They are not real, but could be. I take creative license to communicate the essence of my experience while respecting the privacy of others.